Vice-President For Torture


I haven't been able to read Jane Mayer's new book yet. But the reports, news stories and reviews confirm much of what this blog has followed obsessively for the past seven years - and adds new, dreadful detail.

Needed post-9/11 adjustments to our surveillance and intelligence policies could always have been made with the cooperation of the Congress and the courts, in line with existing or revised law and treaty obligations. Democracies can adjust to new threats and retain their balance - if their leaders want to do so.

But a new war and security regime was instead enforced by executive diktat, as a deliberate, conscious attempt to use 9/11 to establish Schmittian precedents for an extra-legal executive branch. It was so far out there even executive enthusiasts like Jack Goldsmith drew a line. Warrantless wire-tapping was part of it - only recently brought under the law - and Greenwald rightly vents about the precedents again here. (Larison is worth reading on this as well.) But at least the intelligence procured by this illegality might have been useful and reliable. What was procured through torture is definitionally unreliable, and capable of creating an Imaginationland feedback loop in which tortured false confessions raise threat levels which justify more torture - all with no capacity for self-correction. As Frank Rich reminds us today, the al Qaeda-Saddam connection and WMD threat was itself a false casus belli procured through torture.

Here's Scott Horton's rough and ready summary of the key points of Mayer's book:

- The ICRC report on CIA interrogation techniques concluded categorically that they were "torture"--not "tantamount to torture" as previously reported--and issued an explicit warning to the U.S. Administration that the use of these techniques was a war crime which might subject U.S. leaders to criminal prosecution.  This is the real potential headline maker from the book.
- She provides a number of grueling examples of the application of the techniques including the brutal murder of Manadel al-Jamadi, the placement of prisoners in closed coffins for prolonged periods, and one instance in which a below-the-knee amputee with a prosthesis who had his prosthesis taken away and was forced to stand for hours on one foot, hanging from a rail.
- She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed.  She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called "Learned Helplessness" developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process.  All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program.  Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association.  This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.
- She describes an internal CIA investigation by IG Helgerson which concluded that the program violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law.  Vice President Cheney intervened directly, calling Helgerson directly into his office and speaking with him, after which the CIA report was stopped in its tracks.
- Steven Bradbury at DOJ was asked to resolve this by crafting opinions that gave CIA full latitude to torture, with no restraints--setting aside the opinions crafted by Dan Levin which authorized techniques only within narrow constraints.  After Bradbury rendered opinions exactly as solicited on his "probation," Bush personally expressed his pleasure with Bradbury's performance and nominated him to head OLC.
- According to James Comey, AG Gonzales repeatedly told him that he fully appreciated that the CIA program was torture and was criminal but he couldn't oppose or block it because "Cheney wants it."
- The role of the torture lawyers in crafting the system is far more intimate than they have acknowledged.  John Yoo, Michael Chertoff and Alice Fisher reviewed specific techniques which clearly amounted to torture and blessed them as fine to use, and then lied publicly and to Congress about their involvement.  Yoo is said to have given his legal blessing to torture techniques and their application by DOD operatives on the squash court as he played rounds with Jim Haynes.
- A staff attorney at DOJ names Jessica Radack was fired and then hounded by Chertoff and Fisher after she dispensed correct advice to the effect that John Walker Lindh could not be interviewed by the FBI without being Mirandized and having his attorney present.  This advice was overridden by Alberto Gonzales and Jim Haynes, who then had DOJ files purged  to remove any evidence that the correct advice had ever been rendered.  The purging of the files was carried out by Alice Fisher, who went on to head the Criminal Division.  When a district court judge demanded to see the DOJ's internal communication on the matter, he was told that there were no records--Mayer believes that there was criminal obstruction, carried out by the head of the Department's Criminal Division.

- Mayer portrays Cheney as the man who introduced and pushed torture from the beginning and David Addington as his "fixer."  According to her, they never lost a battle.  When meetings were held and the decision came out  against them, they simply persevered and implemented their viewpoint anyway.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty.)